... astonishing ... These jewel-like essays, developed from a series of lectures that Cole delivered at the University of Chicago in 2019, are testament both to his many talents and to the uncanny acuity with which he observes the world. His writing weaves together travelogue, art criticism and meditations on the cruelty of 21st-century politics. But it is perhaps ultimately about humanity’s grappling for meaning and belonging ... Cole’s attention to the texture of things makes for extraordinarily vivid writing ... For all the righteous rage in these pages, Cole acknowledges the limits of literature to change the political world. Even so, I see it as fitting that he uses lyric essays to write about dark times. For me, that form’s beauty, its hope and its power lie in its lack of rigidity, its defiance of preconceived notions. What we see is an individual taking stock of their surroundings, a mode that Cole has mastered. To read this book is to enjoy the generosity of his thought, to be invited into a contemplation of your inner life, to embrace the complexity of others, and to see in the darkness not only despair but also understanding and even refuge.
This collection of Cole’s feels rawer and more personal than those that have come before...layering as it does his art essays with homages to lost friends and analysis of his own 2012 novel, Open City. There are moments when the self-citation begins to feel self-indulgent or when the highbrow tips into the merely pretentious ... I admit I share his preference for novels that feature unsettling encounters with landscape or art over countesses, but I am still relieved when he shows a little sense of humor ... The feeling of sadness that obviously motivated these essays, the feeling of being weighed down by all one is called to see—the phrase is bearing witness, after all—is made lighter by the example of other artists, the potential for joy in sensing all the world is.
While there is nothing else here that quite matches the stylistic brilliance and visceral thrust of that opening essay, Cole’s writing throughout hums with a quiet intensity and sometimes a palpable anger at the inhumanity he witnesses on his travel ... Elsewhere, though, Cole seems less sure-footed ... I was also unsure about the inclusion of a selection of Cole’s critical writings on photography which, while trenchant, have a markedly different register to the more personal, and politically engaged, writing ... The most powerful essays in this book are born out of dissonantly transformative moments ... In articulating them, Cole asks hard questions of himself and of everyone who reads his work: questions about the nature of our shared sense of responsibility, and about how we live in defiance of this ever darkening time. How, to paraphrase one of his essay titles, we resist and refuse.
Meditative and complex, the collection also plays with the essay form. There are works within works ... Each is separated into four distinct sections, with the former shifting focus across four artists and the latter maintaining focus on one individual. There are essays in pieces, too, broken into sections varying in length from a single sentence to no more than a few paragraphs But it is the title essay, 'Black Paper,' that illuminates the collection’s themes of creation during adversity and of using art to process emotion ... Dense and provocative, the essays in Black Paper are a reminder that darkness cannot last forever, and even within it, there is meaning and hope.
In this culturally and historically astute collection of essays, he moves expertly and seemingly effortlessly between the refinement of high art and the tragic state of our current world’s spiraling chaos. Whether he’s narrating his search for Caravaggio’s ghost, following bits of pigment like breadcrumbs across Italy, or reflecting on the shadowy sinews of Kerry James Marshall’s astonishing body of work, Cole is a discerning witness and documentarian of life and art ... Cole’s engaging collection of essays reassembles the visual kaleidoscope of life now in sharp, exacting prose. Cole should be seen and attentively read.
In this erudite collection of observations written over the past three years, art historian Cole...meditates on art, identity, politics, and literature to decipher 'the fractured moment in our history' ... Offering a window into his articulate worldview, Cole brings into sharp relief the very humanity he seeks.